Philosophers will forever debate “nature versus nurture.” Which is more important in determining who we become as people, genetics or environment? But why debate when the answer might be both? Hereditary and social factors interact with each other throughout our lives to shape our own existence. We can observe how nature and nurture play a critical role in professional sports too. Talent and physical makeup matter since a player must meet a certain athletic threshold and have a useful set of skills to make it to the NBA. But a player’s upbringing can determine whether he received the proper guidance to activate his physical potential; furthermore, his situation in the league can play a significant role in his success or failure.
It’s truest in the NBA draft. Players have only so much control over where they’ll get selected, which is why agents will share or hide medical reports, hold players out of workouts, and straight-up lie if it means putting their client in a preferable situation. The right coach, system, and teammates can propel a player down a path that leads to great success, and even potential riches to support generations. The wrong variables can lead to a long and winding road through overseas leagues, without any guarantee of a second chance in the NBA. Fit isn’t everything, but a good one can magnify a player’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses.
The Hawks are placing great importance on the “nurture” aspect. It’s as if general manager Travis Schlenk is assembling a puzzle with the pieces he’s acquired. Their draft haul on Thursday night serves as evidence of the blueprint Schlenk is following, similar to the one that he helped build as an assistant in the Warriors front office. The Hawks opened the night dealing the eighth, 17th, and 35th picks to the Pelicans for the fourth pick, which they used to select Virginia sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter. And with the 10th pick, they chose Duke freshman forward Cam Reddish. Later, they acquired Maryland big man Bruno Fernando with the 34th pick. All three choices meet a clear objective to build around point guard Trae Young.
Young made his mark as a rookie with his dazzling playmaking skills. In building a roster around a blossoming ball-dominant orchestrator, it’s critical to find players who can effectively space the floor and happily accept their roles. Hunter, 21, and Reddish, 19, are unselfish players who hit shots at an average-or-better rate, and they can make smart plays within the flow of the offense. Conversely, both Hunter and Reddish also benefit from Young since they’re at their best with simplified spot-up roles, attacking closeouts with straight-line drives and making the appropriate pass. With Young handling so much of the load, they won’t be asked to do too much and expose their weaknesses as shot creators.
But they’ll cover up for Young too. Opposing offenses targeted Damian Lillard and Steph Curry in the postseason; they’ll someday do the same to Young, a miniature guard at 6-foot-2 with a skinny frame. Young needs defensive support at the wing and forward positions. Hunter is 6-foot-7 with a beefy frame and a 7-foot-2 wingspan with the mobility to defend some guards and the sheer size to battle with bigs. Reddish needs to improve his physicality but has a similarly long 7-foot-1 wingspan. He exhibited switchability in college against players of all shapes, sizes, and skill sets. Both Hunter and Reddish project favorably as off-ball defenders; one can take on a primary assignment against a guard, allowing Young to hide on defense against an inferior player off-ball—much like Curry has done over the years with the Warriors. As much as Young got compared to Curry in college because of his perimeter shooting, building around him on defense is just as important. The more his Hawks teammates can alleviate pressure on Young on defense, the more energy he will be able to exert on offense. The last thing the Hawks can allow is for Young to flame out.
It’s not all about Trae, though. Kevin Huerter, the Hawks’ 2018 first-rounder, serves as the secondary shot creator or a knockdown shooter off screens. John Collins, their 2017 first-round pick, is the rim runner or the spot-up shooting big. And Fernando, this year’s second-round pick, could be the bruising interior defender and scorer who is extending his range to 3. All the pieces fit together well; their skills complement each other rather than overlap, which can spark cohesive player development.
Schlenk chose this path. Last season, he traded down by dealing the third pick (Luka Doncic) to Dallas for the fifth pick (Young) and a protected 2019 first—which turned into Reddish. And this year, the Pelicans traded their fourth pick down to Atlanta so Schlenk could select Hunter. Trading a top-five pick down has happened only 15 times since 1980, yet it’s now happened in three consecutive drafts (in 2017, the Celtics traded the no. 1 overall pick to the Sixers in the deal involving Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum). I have long been an advocate for trading down in the draft to accumulate assets—and the Pelicans are arguably the winners of the night, beyond their selection of Zion Williamson—but there is also merit in trading up when you have assets to dangle like the Hawks do.
Trading up for Hunter gave Atlanta a player with a high floor within their system, and that in turn makes the Reddish pick even sweeter. As positive as Reddish’s game can become alongside a playmaker like Young, he is best suited for a situation without any pressure to be the man. Reddish doesn’t need to be a star in Atlanta. The game will be basic for him to start his career, and if all he ever turns out to be is a role player, then that’s a fine result. The Hawks can take Reddish’s long-term development step by step.
However, don’t forget that Reddish entered the college season ranked ahead of his Duke teammates Zion and R.J. Barrett on many draft boards by scouts, executives, and analysts. Reddish even drew comparisons to Paul George, and for good reason. Reddish isn’t just a stationary shooter who defends. He has flashed go-to scoring skills using his fluid handle, plus passing skills that were more apparent in his on-ball role in high school. He’s incredibly raw though; he’ll fall on drives to the rim like he’s slipping on ice, and he’s yet to tap into his athleticism as a scorer. Maybe that’ll never change. But now with the Hawks, he can steadily develop those handling and shooting skills behind the scenes while receiving timely opportunities to do it on the court thanks to a young, rebuilding roster that will emphasize player development over the next few seasons. Reddish can grow slowly but steadily, just like George did with the Pacers. It’s quite possible that Reddish hit the jackpot with Atlanta, and vice versa.
Look around the league on draft night, and you’ll see other player-team matches ripe for nurturing. Golden State’s first-round pick, Jordan Poole, is a dynamic scorer with ball-hog qualities that need to change; under Steve Kerr, and alongside Steph Curry, he’ll be forced to tap into the glimmers of playmaking skill he flashed at Michigan. The Grizzlies’ pairing of Murray State point guard Ja Morant with Jaren Jackson Jr. became even more appealing once they traded up to select Gonzaga junior Brandon Clarke, a wing with big-man qualities. Clarke can flush lobs and switch screens, while Jackson drains 3s and protects the rim; Morant will be protected on defense while having targets on offense. Tennessee junior Grant Williams is a chunky playmaking forward without a defined position and he landed on the Celtics, a team that values passing prowess across positions and desperately needs a replenishment of skill with the futures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in doubt. Williams is ready to play right away, and likely will need to for Boston.
Teams usually employ the “best player available” strategy for the top picks, but the only clear best player in this draft was Zion Williamson. After him, the class flattened. There was great variance from scout to scout and team to team in player evaluation. A flattened draft class without a large differential in raw talent meant teams could instead draft a bit more for need and fit.
As for Atlanta, Reddish and fellow draftees Hunter and Fernando join a group of Hawks players with unfulfilled potential: Young must continue making advancements on offense, as does Huerter, to form a truly dynamic backcourt, and Collins must improve on defense. These kids all fit on paper, but now it’s time for their talent to manifest. In the long run, the nurturing might just foster their nature.